Learning to Shut Up

I’ve never met the brilliant Canadian comic Ron James but we share a childhood memory. When we were kids, doctors did not diagnose ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. James explains that his father instead called it, “What the hell’s wrong with that boy?”

Like Mr. James, I was always flitting from one thing to another and wanting to do more, read more, and know more. While I did all right in elementary school, I recall wanting lessons to be faster and to explore not what the teacher was pointing at but whatever was around the next corner. I was the kid staring out the window or asking so many questions and offering so many comments that I was deemed a disruptive dreamer. Now, I guess, I would be drugged into submissiveness.

Through high school I applied coping mechanisms. I’d doodle and day dream and ask to go to the washroom in order to walk a bit. I’d snatch what I needed from classes and then read the rest on my own. In the fourth class of a university course I asked the professor if she would be basing the rest of her lectures on the reading packages. When told she would, I skipped the next four months, submitted the assignments, wrote the exam, and earned an A. It was my all time favourite course. Basically, I’d been taught and effectively learned to shut up.

The silence is not a solution for your problems.

I got better at it but like many people, even those without so many thoughts competing for attention and itching to volcano, I’m still learning. Here’s what I’ve figured out so far and, with mixed success, am still practicing:

  1. We need to shut up about other people. Surely the joys and challenges of our own lives are plenty without concerning ourselves with the minutia of others. Besides, it’s none of our business. Privacy is good and gossip is the devil’s radio.
  1. We need to shut up about other people’s motives. We never have all the information and there is no such thing as mind reading. Our guesses will never be more than projections of our own values, needs, or reactions.
  1. We need to shut up about things we’re unwilling to do anything about. If that dog down the street is barking again or the boss has just done something infuriating, or myriad other irritants that test our mettle, we need to either directly address the person or issue or stop complaining.
  1. We need to shut up when someone is talking. When we blurt out our guess regarding what someone is about to say we’re often wrong and always annoying.
  1. We need to shut up when someone tells a joke or story. Even if we know a better one, no one likes the one-upper who competes with a funnier anecdote or broader tale. Let the other enjoy the spotlight.
  1. We need to shut up when someone is dealing with a difficult situation and wants only to work it out by talking it out. We can feel all mushy that we’re being trusted with the unburdening but must resist the urge to offer advice or solutions.
  1. We need to shut up in meetings. Meetings are often too long because of airtime hogged to re-word points already made or to impress the boss. Meetings should be held standing up or walking and rewards bestowed for value added rather than word count.
  1. We need to shut up in the presence of dead air. A little silence is okay. Reflection and thought is okay. We should appreciate the tranquil moments, especially in a car.

Consider the value of occasionally shutting up altogether. In 2013, Imke Kirste of Duke University found that when we stop talking and enjoy silence, the hippocampus portion of the brain explodes with new cell growth. It is the seahorse shaped bit at the brain’s centre that is responsible for the categorization and storage of long-term memory.

Kirste quantified what monks have, through their example, been gently arguing for centuries. Based on monastic notions of spiritual sojourning, silent retreats now exist throughout the world. They offer idyllic settings and experiences such as hiking, yoga, or spa treatments, all linked by their sanctuaries of silence. No radio. No TVs, i-things, or music and, most importantly, no talking. People pay big money to shut up. The Esalen Institute in Big Sur California, for instance, charges $5,000 to spend a week with them in silence.

Some folks can’t do it. The toughest part, apparently, is that a week of silence demands hours alone with oneself and some find they don’t like the company. Try it. For just one day, switch everything off and shut up. Let your mind flow. Ponder why it’s so hard or marvel at your personal mystery tour as your brain rewires itself.

There’s work left for me to do. I still slip up and don’t shut up when asked my opinion of an emotionally controversial matter or when happily amid friends. Ron James learned to make a living by harnessing his bucking bronco thoughts. Speaking, writing, and even singing torrents of words have similarly enabled me to ply my trade and pursue my passions. I get the irony of saying this through a blog post shot-gunned into the universe, but I’m getting better at silence.

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Two Questions to Never Ask Teenagers

You should never try to teach a dog to whistle for it will result in nothing more than frustrating yourself and annoying the dog. Similarly, there are questions that you should never ask a teenager. The two most important are these:

Question One: What were you thinking?

Last Saturday evening I was leaning on a railing enjoying the majestic view of the river and parliament buildings from Ottawa’s beautiful Major Hill Park. Then, far below, a young man had missed the Frisbee thrown by a friend and they were staring forlornly into Rideau Canal’s shallow, stagnant water fifty feet down.

The taller, skinnier one was suddenly climbing down the lead used by boats in the summer. A small crowd gathered at my railing. We were too far away to intervene but some giggled, some shook their heads, and, like me, others held their breaths.

Two Essential Questions to Never Ask Teenagers

Rideau Canal from the park (www.tripadvisor.com)

At the bottom of the cable, the young man found himself six feet or so from his little yellow toy. He clamoured back up. Soon he had descended again, had a leg linked over the bottom of the cable, and was precariously dangling upside down. He’d gone Cirque du Soleil on us. His friend then dropped a long stick that he miraculously caught. He used it to snag the Frisbee and then sailed it back to the top. Clearly exhausted, he slowly climbed out with his legs visibly shaking. Our little crowd dispersed as our two heroes commenced a spirited victory dance.

Why did he do what could have led to a serious injury or death? It was his brain’s fault.

You see, the last part of our brains to become fully functional is the pre-frontal cortex. It is just behind the forehead. It is the area responsible for being responsible. It links cause and effect. The incomplete wiring renders teenagers not unwilling but unable to fully comprehend situations that adults would consider socially awkward or inherently dangerous. As a result, teenagers often embarrass or infuriate adults or take what an adult would consider crazy risks like, for instance, climbing into a deep, concrete canal.

Scanning of a human brain by X-rays

(Photo: sharpbrains.com)

The nucleus accumbens is another part of the story. That is near the back of our brain and is the first to develop. In teenagers, the impulses flowing through that wiring work overtime. It is the pleasure seeking, reward loving part of the brain. It is the part that inspires action not because it would be right or safe but only because it would be fun. With no frontal cortex to warn of risks, the teenagers are off to the party, into the fast car, skipping away from class, or, like last Saturday, lowering themselves down canal walls.

I wish I had been closer so that I could have warned our young friend about what he was about to do. I could have done as good parents and teachers do and, like a computer’s remote hard drive, acted as his remote pre-frontal cortex. But we spectators were all too far away. And it was just as well there were no adults waiting at the top when he emerged to ask our young climber what he was thinking. His honest answer would have been, “I was not thinking at all.”

Question Two: What do you want to be?

This question is dumb for three reasons. First, it implies that the teenager is nothing now. That’s insulting.

Second, the question is probing for a profession. The problem is that most teenagers don’t know and so will just proffer an answer likely to please. Why encourage lying? Further, according to Forbes magazine, teenagers today will have 15 to 20 jobs in their working lives. So why ask the question left over from the days of gold watches? Plus, one or more of those occupations will likely involve a job that does not now exist. So how can a teenager know what their job or jobs will be?

Most important of all, though, is that the question perpetuates the sad habit of defining oneself by a job. It’s the game show mentality of defining questions: what’s your name, where are you from, what do you do? It’s what crushes the souls of the un- and underemployed, led to baby boomer suicides after the 2008 crash, and makes retirement difficult for far too many. What am I if I am not the teacher, lawyer, or whatever? If a person is more than their race, gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, ability, and body shape, then are they not also more than their job?

So if an adult asks a teenager what they want to be, a good answer would be this: “I hope to be an engaged citizen, a person of good character, a responsible parent, and a person who loves and is loved.” In fact, that would be a good answer for even those of us with fully wired brains.

For now, let’s avoid both questions. Instead, let’s enjoy our non-whistling dogs and the teenagers who are doing the best they can.

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